Ravens rule in Canberra, OK?

Ian Fraser 8 October 2021 38
Raven sitting on fence

Ravens readily adapt to suburban living and hang around garbage tips and picnic areas. Photo: Ian Fraser.

Along with many other Canberrans, I loved the recent story about the nesting Gungahlin ravens taking exception, followed closely by direct action, against commercial drones daring to approach their nest.

Any nesting bird will react to a predator in their territory, and the only safe assumption about an unfamiliar large flying object is that it’s a threat to the brooding parent, chicks or eggs. Small birds will stay low and quiet; larger, bolder ones will meet the threat head-on.

READ MORE: It’s a case of birds versus drones in Gungahlin’s skies

My favourite part about this story is the report that although on the first attack the raven lost some feathers and presumably suffered some painful blows from the propellors, by the second day, it had worked out how to avoid them and attack other parts of the drone. We learn from all this that ravens are big, not afraid to protect themselves, and very smart indeed.

Ravens and crows (we’ll get to that soon) have had bad press for centuries. My own suspicion is that it stems from their associations with ancient battlefields, but needless to say, they neither started nor fought the wars, they just helped clean up afterwards.

Raven and Willie Wagtail

Willie Wagtails are well aware of a raven’s fondness for eggs and will see them off. Photo: Ian Fraser.

In Australia, ravens have long been demonised as ‘lamb killers’. However, the myth was thoroughly debunked by years of intensive study by near-legendary CSIRO scientist Ian Rowley in the area around Lake George 50 years ago.

Ravens certainly attend when ewes are lambing, but are not interested in healthy lambs, which can readily see them off. They eat stillborns and hasten the end of some weak and dying lambs but make no difference to overall losses.

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Raven or crow? Well, we’ve opted, for no good reason, to call three of the near-identical Australian species’ ravens’ and the other two ‘crows’, but it’s a pretty meaningless distinction, like kangaroo/wallaby and frog/toad. Locally we have two ravens – Australian and Little, but if you’re used to calling them crows, I see no reason for you to change.

Mostly in Canberra, we see Australian Ravens, which are larger, with distinct throat hackles and a falsetto wailing call. They are generally in pairs and stay close to their breeding territory all year round.

Little Ravens are slightly smaller (though you need to see them side by side to recognise that), with a deeper, shorter call, and are usually seen in wandering flocks. In summer, they go up into the mountains to prey on Bogong Moths, though in a good cicada season, they’ll come down to take advantage of them too.

Raven in grassland

Little Ravens are common in high mountain meadows in summer. Photo: Ian Fraser.

One reason for the success of Australian Ravens is their very broad diet. They will eat insects, grain, roadkill, reptiles, mice, young rabbits and fruit, and scavenge our garbage. A friend sent me a photo of a raven catching fish on a dam spillway in inland Australia.

They are especially fond of eggs. When I kept ducks, I couldn’t work out why they’d stopped laying until I saw a raven on a panicked duck’s back, pecking at the tail where it had learnt that eggs appeared! I put netting over the run. Ravens are notorious for stealing golf balls, presumably mistaking them for eggs.

They will stash food for later use, pushing it into hollows or burying it in soft ground. More importantly, they remember where they put it, which is more than I can do sometimes. As I’ve already noted, they are highly intelligent.

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Elsewhere in the world, closely related crows are famed for their remarkable tool-using abilities – but even more remarkable is their capacity to construct these tools for particular tasks.

New Caledonian Crows will carry a little tool kit around with them, with hooks and probes and scrapers for extracting grubs from hollows. They choose and snip twigs and palm leaves to suit and use moulted feathers as probes.

In captivity, they quickly learnt to use and shape wire provided to them. Japanese Crows have been filmed putting walnuts on the road when the traffic lights are red and collecting the kernels when the lights have changed and the cars have cracked the shells. Other crows pull up set fishing lines to take fish or bait.

I’m not aware of such behaviour being reported in Australia, but I’d be not all surprised if it were. These really are amazing birds and we don’t appreciate them enough. Drones beware.

Ian Fraser is a Canberra naturalist, conservationist and author. He has written on all aspects of natural history, advised the ACT government on biodiversity and published multiple guides to the region’s flora and fauna.


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38 Responses to Ravens rule in Canberra, OK?
Nadine Deakin Nadine Deakin 9:40 pm 17 Oct 21

That's really interesting. I have a colleague who lives on a property in Cooma - he's in his 70s and was brought up on the land. He told me that ravens are coastal, whereas crows are inland birds. Because we are near the Great Dividing Range, we apparently get a 50/50 mix of each. He mentioned something about (when he was a kid) someone shooting one of each and pointing out the difference in the feathers around the neck. He also said that crows are the ones that go "Ahh!", whereas ravens go "Ah, ah, ah, aaaaaahhhh". I really love talking to him - I fear that the information he and other older friends of mine have (tucked away in their minds) will one day be lost.

Lisa Bettridge Lisa Bettridge 12:50 pm 13 Oct 21

Matt Shepherd raven's.

franky22 franky22 4:41 pm 11 Oct 21

Coralee maybe the guys who do the roo cull could sort it out.

Brianna Brianna 9:45 am 11 Oct 21

Thank you! I really enjoyed this article. It was very informative without being tedious. I have a bird bath in my back yard. I fill this bird bath up to four times a day in summer. Our locals, magpies, ravens, sparrows and some other bird (I’m not sure what it is) all come down and use the bath. Some drink, some splash around and others just go nuts in it. It’s wonderful to see.

    Ian Fraser Ian Fraser 4:45 pm 11 Oct 21

    One of the best things you can do for birds Brianna, all year round.

Glenda Solodchuck-Felstead Glenda Solodchuck-Felstead 9:25 am 11 Oct 21

Misty Leigh, interesting, there’s a pair living near here now, see them often and being chased by the peewees when nesting.

Coralee Rauber Coralee Rauber 8:34 am 11 Oct 21

Can something be done about the carrawongs in canberra?

They have become a major pest.

    Luckylegs Chris Luckylegs Chris 9:10 am 11 Oct 21

    They are a native bird not a pest. Lear to live with them.

    Vaughan Kingsley Vaughan Kingsley 9:24 am 11 Oct 21

    I agree with you Coralee, they are a HUGE problem in our area. Tuggeranong park is the worse area, can anything be done this ACT Government ?

    Coralee Rauber Coralee Rauber 9:30 am 11 Oct 21

    Luckylegs Chris I know but no I will not put up with over crowding of them who are a nuisance and become a pest in my area. They need a cull

    Steve Aust Steve Aust 5:54 pm 11 Oct 21

    Coralee Rauber agree. Currawongs need a major cull, around 50%.

    Terry Bush Terry Bush 9:13 pm 11 Oct 21

    as an old timer I can assure you currawongs are a new arrival in the Canberra area, first currawongs I saw were down the coast. They are aggressive birds and prey on smaller birds nests, eating their young. A little wattle bird had a nest on my verandah, and stinking currawongs ate the chicks, also they trash every blue wren nest they find

    Terry Bush Terry Bush 9:15 pm 11 Oct 21

    Luckylegs Chris they are a pest... expanding their territory and increasing numbers means other birds being pushed out

Capital Retro Capital Retro 8:21 am 11 Oct 21

Bronwyn Meridith wrote………”for the past three or four years, no babies. Perhaps they’re too old. I love seeing them every day.”

They have probably decided that they don’t want their offspring to be born into a climate crisis world……………

Matthew Pez Matthew Pez 2:32 am 11 Oct 21

I like them and occasionally throw them a few fries and bits of burger when I'm eating in my car at Weston Maccas. Awesome beasties, they are quite social, especially when they recognize you as someone who shares fries.

karnakd9 karnakd9 11:55 pm 10 Oct 21

We have a pair who visit and I think they are such clever birds

John Atherton John Atherton 9:38 pm 10 Oct 21

Seen One take of with a set of car keys.

Bronwyn Meredith Bronwyn Meredith 9:24 pm 10 Oct 21

I'm fortunate to have a raven pair living near me. They were around when I moved here 17 years ago and used to raise babies every year. It was fascinating watching them raise their young. For the past three or four years, no babies. Perhaps they're too old. I love seeing them every day.

Cindy Lee Lucas Cindy Lee Lucas 6:34 pm 10 Oct 21

I have a wonderful raven family that visit every day.

First was one with only one eye, I called him white eye.

He came every morning, mastered the words, water, biscuit and now.

The next season he had a partner followed by two children.

NOW days the sit out the front, say biscuit now, not now, wait. Water and out now.

When I ask them to wait, they sit on my stairs.

Then when I put out food the males sing then watch while the female or young eats first, then they drink together. He flys her back to the nest, then he returns, has a feed and a drink then sits with me while I talk to him for a while.

Then he tilts his head a flies back to his nest.

Beautiful birds

Jennifer Bradley Jennifer Bradley 5:31 pm 10 Oct 21

I think it's a great story.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 4:57 pm 10 Oct 21

Great story. I now have a new respect for these birds.

Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 2:49 pm 10 Oct 21

Little Ravens are the prettiest and the friendliest I have found. When we lived in a unit, we had one that visited me every day. If I didnt come out onto the balcony he would sit on the gutter and call out to me until I came outside to talk to him. The neighborhood kids were facinated by him. I never fed him, just talked to him. This went on for a few years. Just before we left he seemed to know we were leaving and came to visit, staying longer than normal. Just before leaving he said 'Hello.' I thought I was imagining things but Hubby heard it as well. He flew around and around the balcony and flew away. We didnt see him for that last week of our stay in the unit. Make friends, not enemies 🙂

Heidi Krueger Heidi Krueger 2:20 pm 10 Oct 21

We have a raven that comes daily now down in the southern suburbs. we are not sure what happened but someone has cut his tail feathers and just clipped the wings. We call him bob-tail .... yes, very original. He is very afraid of people. anyway, we watched him carefully to see if he could fly and search for food. Yes to both. We are keeping an eye on him and he gets some extra food from us when the magpies & currawongs turn up for a feed. He buries a lot around the front garden and goes back later to retrieves his goodies.

It makes me very angry to think someone has done this on purpose. Either to try and keep the bird or to try and kill it if it couldn't fly or hunt. It was definitely a wilful act as the feathers are sharp clean cut.

Joan Legge Joan Legge 1:50 pm 10 Oct 21

I FEED some magpie and the ravens come in sometimes ,they are really scared of the magpie which surprised me .The pigeons with the crests also seem to have them fluffed.

Micko Aka-Michael Lymbery Micko Aka-Michael Lymbery 1:37 pm 10 Oct 21

There is a big one at Majura Park that pulls the maccas bags out of the bin, carefully pulls out the chip containers and civilly enjoys the leftover fries, while chasing off the half dozen indian miners harassing him.

    Poppy Griffiths Poppy Griffiths 10:11 pm 10 Oct 21

    Micko Aka-Michael Lymbery They're very clever... I work at a preschool, and they learnt how to take to lid off the rubbish bin to eat the student's lunch scraps!!!

Robyne Mitchell Robyne Mitchell 1:37 pm 10 Oct 21

I have a bird bath in the front. Many different birds come to drink as it gets filled with fresh water all the time. One day two Ravens (or Crows) came to drink. One had something shiny in his beak and was trying to work out how to drink without putting it down. Then he flew down on the lawn next door and pushed it under a clump of grass and flew up to the water bowl, but as he was doing that a noise disturbed him so he flew off. I went outside to see what he hid. It was a 10 cent piece, a silver 8 (from a birthday card) and something else which I have forgotten. I left the things there and my hubby said a few days later the bird came back and took the money.

Samantha Moffat Samantha Moffat 1:17 pm 10 Oct 21

Ravens?? I thought they were called Crows in Australia? 🤔

    Leigh Cameron Leigh Cameron 6:58 pm 10 Oct 21

    Everyone calls them "crows" but they're technically ravens

    Philip Veerman Philip Veerman 4:01 pm 11 Oct 21

    As Ian explained, the name difference is mostly arbitrary. Three species in Australia are called ravens and two species are called crows. They are all very similar and most casual observers would not know the difference. Indeed it requires quite a lot of knowledge to identify each species. they are all members of the crow family and genus Corvus. The family includes a huge number of very different species outside Australia. Of the Aust species the ravens have the inner parts of the body feathers grey whereas the crow species that part is white. But as you rarely see the bases of the body feathers, it matters rather little.

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